By Gen Terblanche19 October 2023
5 things Rain Dogs nails about poverty
Once upon a time there was a woman who wrote part of her fantasy novel series while she was a single mother fleeing an abusive marriage and living with her young daughter in a rundown flat. She was unemployed, barely surviving on government assistance and help from her friends. Today, Harry Potter author JK Rowling is a multi-millionaire.
This is not her story.
In the new pitch-dark British dramedy Rain Dogs, unemployed single mom Costello Jones (Daisy May Cooper, Sarah/Zarah in Avenue 5 S1-2) is hoping that she and her tween daughter Iris (Fleur Tashjian) can escape poverty the same way as JK – through writing. Because, really, what else is there? Pole dancing for perverts?
Every time Costello seems to get her head above water, though, the next wave comes crashing down. If she didn’t have her friends, her kid, her attitude, resilience, or her unique way of looking at life, Rain Dogs would be a tragedy.
It’s familiar ground for Rain Dogs’ creator Cash Carraway. The series is partly inspired by her own books – Skint Estate, and Refuge Woman: Live Poverty Porn – that were based largely on her experiences, but included elements from the stories told by other women she met in shelters and while working in minimum wage jobs.
A class act
Rain Dogs opens with Costello being evicted over around £3 000 – two months in back rent (around R70 000). While the series dodges the poverty porn label, choosing to see life through a fantasy lens – as if we’re reading Costello’s wry take on events, with a sprinkling of her wish fulfilment – it does have a sharp eye for the world surrounding poverty, in the same way that series like Succession and The White Lotus have an eye for the world that surrounds the rich.
These are just five of the things that Rain Dogs nails about real-life modern poverty.
1: All your choices are “bad” choices
Without money, life becomes a strategy game where all the outcomes are terrible, and you have to figure out which choice will end up being least terrible. Buying scratch cards with your last ready cash in the hope of a windfall is only a terrible choice if that cash was enough to cover your room for the night or a decent ready-made meal, since you don’t have a stove to cook on or a plate to eat off. And, spoiler alert, it isn’t.
In the series, Costello has to choose between exposing her daughter to sex work (despite how much she tries to shield her) or gambling on sexual violence on the street. Between breaking into a car, or having nowhere warm, dry and with enough light for Iris to do her school work. Between staying with an abusive friend, or going back to a corrosive environment of intolerance in a women’s shelter. Good luck doing the “right” thing. The planning involved is exhausting.
2: The judgement
Costello navigates this world while knowing that people are going to judge her – as if all the resources that they have access to were on the table, and she chose what she did out of sheer selfishness and stupidity. On that note, the extent to which people feel entitled to patronise her is shocking. In episode 2, for example, Costello runs into a journalist who seems to offer her a chance to talk about her life in her own words in an essay that’ll be published in the newspaper, but the journalist ends up rewriting it into a dehumanising article about how “brave” and “empowered” Costello is for stripping to pay the bills.
The photographer on the story is even more open about being a “poverty voyeur”. After he takes her on a “date” to a charity food bin, Costello comments about him being a wanna-be Louis Theroux (the real-life adventure journalist).
Wherever Costello goes, whatever she does incites comment and judgement, from cashiers, aid workers and the dusty public. And when Costello pushes back against any of it, or acts in a way that people don’t expect “those of her class” to behave, she’s the problem.
3: Poverty traps just for women
When a “nice guy” named Brett (Stephen Wight) offers Costello a place to stay in episode 1 after overhearing a cashier sounding off about her choices, he seems to be tossing her a lifeline … but there’s an anchor attached. Once she’s in his place, he tries to force her into sex.
Aside from all the hidden-strings-attached offers like this that Costello gets from predators who specialise in exploiting women in literal life-or-death situations – including specialist sex-cam work that markets its models as battered woman – there’s the fact that she and Iris are homeless in the first place because they’re fleeing domestic abuse from Iris’s father, while Costello is doing everything she can not to return to the emotionally abusive home that she left 15 years back.
Even Costello’s love-hate relationship with her old university friend Selby (Jack Farthing), a posh, old-money gay man who’s just come out of prison after serving time for assault, is tinged with gender-based violence and exploitation.
4: Friends are a lifeline and a millstone
Selby (Jack Farthing) clearly loves and supports Costello and Iris, and he and Costello have a shared perspective on life that seems to make them twin souls despite their wildly different backgrounds. But he seems to get a vicious thrill out of causing drama, particularly when his mental health takes a downturn and he deliberately squanders Costello’s savings, or smashes her laptop to trap her with him. As a mom, Costello can’t afford to take quite the same devil-may-care view of consequences.
Costello’s other saving graces – who’re as likely to need help as to be they are to be helpful – are her equally chaotic BFF Gloria (Ronke Adekoluejo), a makeup artist in a family funeral home who steps up when Costello needs someone to take care of Iris, but also winds up wrecking Iris’s chances to return to her old school by picking a fight with one of the moms. And crumbling artist Lenny (Adrian Edmondson), a pervert who pays Costello to perform housecleaning for him as an erotic act, but also treats her like a full human being.
A social worker might want to separate Iris from all these toxic influences, including Costello, but they bring warmth into her life every bit as much as shelter, hot water and warm food do.
5: One short step to cascading chaos
Rain Dogs opens with Costello and Iris being evicted. For Iris, it means losing a familiar space and even her school friends, but for Costello it means having to start everything tied to Iris’s schooling from scratch yet again and, yet again, facing mountains of paperwork and a bureaucratic nightmare of address changes that impact her access to social support services. Without money to shore things up when something goes wrong, every little knock brings the roof down on her and Iris.
Despite all of that, Costello and Iris are surviving and thriving through the power of sheer human stubbornness and humour.
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